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Published: July 12th 2013
I had no idea why I chose to go to Yangon. First of all, I needed to apply a visa and had to visit the Embassy in Singapore (alternatively, visa can also be applied on line but it will take approximately two weeks to get it done). Perhaps, I was inspired by Aung Suu Kyi who was just released when I visited the country last year. I could feel how excited the Myanmar people when Hillary Clinton visited the country, followed by Aung Suu Kyi receiving an award in the US and attending a United Nation event. Nothing could describe their happiness and hopes for a better country and I could feel the excitement while I was in the country.
Yangon is the former capital city of Myanmar. It used to be called Rangoon (I got confused myself until I got the facts straight) but the name was changed to Yangon in 1989 when the military junta didn't want to be associated with prior government. Yangon has a total population of 4.3 million in a 60 million country, but interestingly, when I was there, I didn't feel that I was among the 4.3 million people (it felt smaller than that
perhaps because it was not too busy as a city i.e. there were not many vehicles on the street). The unique thing about the country is that it borders with India, Bangladesh, China, Thailand and Laos; hence, it has diverse cultures.
After making my hotel booking (I stayed at the Traders Hotel by Marriott) and obtaining my visa, I was ready to leave (thankfully, there is a direct daily flight from Singapore to Yangon). I didn't have any itinerary or any contact of tour guides. One observation upon landed at the airport, I saw many men in sarong (or longyi) with white collared shirts. I was not used to the sight as in my country, Indonesia, people wore sarong only either at home, for prayers or for some occasions. Some women had their faces covered with white tapioca paste powder (again, in my country, we only see women with this type of powder only in villages or at home for cooling effect).
I took a cab from the airport to the hotel which was safe (most taxi has no air condition) and the cab drivers are typically honest, and had my lunch at the hotel before deciding to
explore the city. Thankfully, the hotel has free wifi, while mobile phone didn't work. I immediately browsed 'things to do' in Yangon and decided I should visit Sule Pagoda near the hotel (it's within a walking distance). I found walking around in the city was safe and even went through small alleys to have a glimpse of the daily life of the people.
Sule Pagoda is a small temple located at the heart of downtown of Yangon. From here, I continued walking exploring other older buildings in the area where you can see the British colonial influence in the design. Along the way, I noticed a few palm readers - whether they are on a side walk or in an old jeep. Somehow, palm reading is a popular among the locals. After spending about an hour and a half exploring the city, I returned to the hotel and wanted to go to the biggest Pagoda in the entire country: Shwedagon.
I arrived when the sun was still high and was a bit surprised to learn the temple was not too crowded (later on I found out that visitors prefer to come later in the afternoon when it's cooler).
There were a few monks and nuns walking around the Pagoda clock wise. Some purified Buddha's statues placed at each corner of the Pagoda. People will water the statue depending on the astrological birthdate calculation. I saw a group of ladies chanting Buddha's script in one corner of the temples and some laid prayers mat in front of the statue to pray. Interestingly, no matter what religion you are, when you are surrounded by people who pray, you feel peaceful and at home.
While I took my time in exploring the beautiful golden pagoda and took photos, I heard someone greeted me in Arabic "Assalamualaikum" and I responded back "Waalaikum salam". He introduced himself as Nur and said he's a guide but never offered me his service to take me around the city. In fact, he suggested a few places for me to visit and how to get there. I then asked him if he could be my guide and took me around the city (you probably thought I was nuts asking a stranger to be my guide in a foreign country, but I had always trust my guts).
The first destination was Botatoung Pagoda near Yangon River.
What's interesting about this pagoda was that the prayers chambers were made of gold (yes, real gold!). This was also the temple that housed Buddha IV's tooth. After spending some time at Botatoung Pagoda, we headed towards Yangon river nearby. Apparently, there is no bridge linking Yangon to the city across the river, Dalla. People had to commute by boats. Foreigners were not allowed to take any boats and can cross only using public ferry. We agreed that we should go back and freshen up before going back to Shwedagon for sunset. The view of the Pagoda in the evening was slightly different than earlier in the day and there were a lot more visitors as well. I was explained and pointed out at one of the Buddha statues which has a live eyeball (I tried zooming in my camera to see without much success). And another one whose mole kept moving every day (I needed to visit this place daily to see where the mole was). The pagoda indeed was magnificent. The tallest part of the stupa was decorated with gems which reflect different colour depending on where we stood.
I had agreed to try hawkers food at
China town for dinner. Just like any other China town in the neighbourhood countries, the place was crowded and filled with food stalls. We had steam fish and satays (the food was not too great but I got the chance to eat like a local).
I had agreed to rent a car for a day which could take us to Bago, a small and sleepy town North of Yangon, the next day. It's reachable within one and half hour from Yangon (about 80 km). The road was small but was in good condition. The first place we visited was Kyaly Wai Monastery, and we had to be there before 10:30 am when all monks finished their morning prayers and walked in line to the dining room for their meal. Other attraction in Bago includes Reclining Buddha statue and Kambawzarhardi Royal Palace, built by KIng Bayinnaung, the founder of the second Myanmar Empire, in 1556. Unfortunately, the place was not well maintained. We also went to the tallest Pagoda in the country: Shwemoredow but after seeing Shwedagon, this tallest pagoda does not seem interesting.
The next day or last day of my trip, we went to a wet market
and saw alms giving to the monks as there was a monastery nearby. As I still had some time before catching my flight back to Singapore in the afternoon, I decided that we should cross the river and visited Dalla, which reminded me of old Singapore pictures taken in 1920s: porters wearing longyi with straw hats and rickshaws waiting for passengers embarking from the ferry. To me, the images were vivid in black and white.
If I think Yangon was under developed, Dala was a much less under developed. We rented a rickshaw who agreed to take us around for an hour. We went through the local villages where there was a moslem wedding. Out of my curiosity, I asked the rickshaw to stop and entered the wedding venue held in a local school and greeted them 'Assalamualaikum' and was replied "Wa alaikum salam". Immediately, the bridge and groom appeared and invited me in for a briyani rice meal! My guide could not believe that I agreed to enter and had meal with the bridge and groom (I did give them my contribution after the meal though). The bride and groom even insisted of taking a photo with me before I left!
Going back to Yangon, we still had some time to visit Aung San Market, named after Aung Suu Kyi's father. It's a tourist spot for shopping (locals don't come here). I got a small painting at a very reasonable price and a tribal hand woven spread. This was sufficient for me to return to Singapore and plan for the next trip to Bagan, the land of thousands of temples.
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